The Cement Garden

Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden – e-book

Read from June3rd to 6th 2014

My rating: 4/5 stars


Concrete civilisation

Ian McEwan’s Cement Garden left me with the same feelings I had after reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. i was aware of their resemblance right from the beginning, not in the sense of an imitation, of course, far from it, but in the choice of the theme and the way to develop it.

Both books argue about the famous nature versus nurture, showing how thin the shell of civilization is, how easy social conventions are forgotten when the link with society is broken. And the childhood is the most ill-equipped to prevent this involution, since childhood is no secret garden, the authors warn us, but a dangerous hunting ground, be it an island or a shabby house, haunted by invisible monsters born of nightmares, transforming a sow’s head eaten by flies in a powerful Lord and a cement-filled trunk full of indiscrete cracks in a eerie garden. In the absence of the adults to sanction their moves and beliefs, children regress to primitive beings, barely human despite their efforts to imitate adulthood.

However, if Golding analysed mainly the gregarious psychology and the penchant for cruelty versus assertion of individuality and compassion, McEwan is interested in the crumble of the family values in all Freudian ways possible – parricide, incest, sex confusion, regression to infancy, as results of parental abuse and isolation, as it is suggested right from the beginning by the fifteen-year-old narrator:

I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way.

The story of the four siblings taking care of themselves after their parents’ death is, symbolically, the story of the world after the apocalypse, when none of the old constraints and values is applicable. The cement garden gains thus a triple significance: it refers either to the monstrous garden built by an obsessive, abusive and tasteless father, to the ad-hoc grave of a submissive, without authority and ignorant mother and to the barren, catastrophic childhood of the protagonists left alone to discover that beings are interchangeable and rules are confusing and altogether futile in a world that gained the attributes of a perpetual, out of time nightmare:

'It's funny,' Julie said, 'I've lost all sense of time. It feels like it's always been like this. I can't really remember how it used to be when Mum was alive and I can't really imagine anything changing. Everything seems still and fixed and it makes me feel that I'm not frightened of anything.'

I said, 'Except for the times I go down into the cellar I feel like I'm asleep. Whole weeks go by without me noticing, and if you asked me what happened three days ago I wouldn't be able to tell you.'

In the end, however, again like in Lord of the Flies, the adults come back and the order is restored. Or is it? For the return to a society that will surely discipline them into the image of their awful parents is no happy ending in the horribly fascinating worlds, so different and so alike, these two great writers have created.

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